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Lifeboat overview

Updated 11 Oct 2019

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Important as lifeboats and liferafts are, most crew and passengers on ships would rather they remained unused. However, they are a necessary last resort for those on board and over the years many have been grateful that they were provided.

The launching arrangements for survival craft are contained in SOLAS Chapter III Regulation 16 and the carriage requirements for passenger ships and cargo ships in Regulations 21 and 31 respectively.

SOLAS requires that there be sufficient lifeboats on board passenger ships to accommodate all persons on board; half being placed on each side of the vessel. At the discretion of the flag state, the lifeboat capacity on each side can be reduced to 37.5% of the total number on board with the shortfall being made up with liferafts. For passenger vessels on short international voyages, it is permissible for the lifeboat capacity to be reduced and the deficiency replaced with liferafts. In all cases there must also be additional liferaft capacity to cover 25% of the total on board.

For cargo vessels, the requirement is for a lifeboat on each side capable of carrying all persons on board and liferafts for the same number. If the liferafts can be transferred from side to side the requirement can be met with one set of liferafts. In case a stern free-fall lifeboat is fitted, the requirement for capacity for all on board on each side is removed but the requirement for liferafts remains unchanged. The liferaft or liferafts must be equipped with a lashing or an equivalent means of securing it that will automatically release the liferaft from a sinking ship.

There are special requirements in SOLAS for certain vessel types when the normally required enclosed lifeboat is replaced by a more specialised alternative. Chemical tankers and gas carriers carrying cargoes emitting toxic vapours or gases require lifeboats with a self-contained air support system complying with the requirements of section 4.8 of the LSA Code. For oil tankers, chemical tankers and gas carriers carrying cargoes having a flashpoint not exceeding 60ºC (closed-cup test) the rule is for fire-protected lifeboats complying with the requirements of section 4.9 of the LSA Code.

The issue of ensuring a safe atmosphere inside an enclosed lifeboat is not necessarily confined to vapours from cargoes. The oxygen inside a totally enclosed lifeboat occupied by a full complement of crew and/or passengers could soon become depleted without adequate ventilation. At the SSE 5 meeting in March 2018, it was agreed that a requirement for a ventilation rate of at least 5m3/h per person to comply with the expected performance should be set. In this regard, a new paragraph under 4.6.6 of the LSA Code was drafted and adopted at MSC 100 in December 2018.

Lifeboat design

Lifeboat design and construction has changed over the years, but open boats have predominated until quite recently. Today most vessels are equipped with totally or partially enclosed lifeboats. Traditionally lifeboats have been hung on davits and lowered on wire falls. More recently the free fall lifeboat has become a feature on many vessels and is mandatory on some types of tanker. The free fall lifeboat is not designed for regular launch and recovery and therefore accidents during training are rare.

Since the 1980s, SOLAS has required every lifeboat to be launched by a fall or falls, except a free-fall lifeboat to be fitted with a release mechanism complying with the following requirements:

All hooks are to be released simultaneously. The mechanism shall have normal (off-load) and on-load release capabilities.

Release system shall be so arranged as to release the lifeboat under any conditions of loading from no load with the lifeboat waterborne to the load of 1.1 times the total mass of the lifeboat when loaded with its full complement of persons and equipment. The release control shall be clearly marked with a colour that contrasts with its surroundings.

The fixed structural connections of the release mechanism in the boat shall be designed with the calculated safety factor of 6 based on the ultimate strength of the material used.

Every lifeboat shall be fitted with a device to secure a painter near its bow. Except for free-fall lifeboats, the painter securing device shall include a release device to ensure the painter to be released from inside the lifeboat, with the ship making headway at speeds up to 5 knots in calm water.

It is well known that the main causes of accidents have been the on load release mechanism being operated at the wrong moment or the mechanism failing (usually because the securing arrangements have been carried out incorrectly) causing the lifeboat to be released at an unsafe height or leaving the lifeboat hanging from one of its ends.

There have been far fewer problems with incidents of off load release and in any case these would be less of a danger to life except in a genuine emergency where it was impossible to release the lifeboat from its falls. When used for its prime purpose of abandoning ship, a lifeboat would not be required to be retrieved as it is during a drill and it is because so many of the accidents have occurred when the lifeboat was being retrieved after a drill that the requirement for releasing the lifeboat or manning it during drills has been suspended.

Lifeboat stores & servicing

Lifeboats are considered essential items of ships’ equipment and although there has been an extended period with few, if any, instances of crew having to survive for a long time in lifeboats, there is no guarantee that this situation will continue. In recent cases where lifeboats have been used in earnest, their occupants have been picked up by search and rescue services or the boats have reached shore in a relatively short space of time. This has led some to question whether the equipment that is required by SOLAS to be carried by survival craft is still necessary or appropriate, especially for vessels operating close to shore.

The Polar Code adopted in November 2014 has some special requirements for survival craft that include a requirement for each to have communication equipment and searchlights as well as a requirement for lifeboats to be fully or partially enclosed. At least one maker has produced a purpose- designed Polar liferaft.

SOLAS requires all lifeboats, liferafts and launching apparatus to be serviced at regular intervals. During the mid-2000s the IMO issued guidelines and intended to make mandatory requirements for all LSAs to be serviced and repaired only by OEMs. There was much opposition to this from independent servicing organisations who argued that their competence had been proved over time and that not all OEMs were still in existence. The debate subsided after it was agreed that independent service providers could continue to operate either by becoming approved by the OEMs or recognised by flag states.

Rescue boats

In addition to the lifeboats and liferafts required by SOLAS, ships are also obliged to be equipped with a rescue boat. For some passenger vessels, a fast rescue boat is stipulated. The prime purpose of the rescue boat is self-explanatory and is the recovery of persons from the water. Under SOLAS they also have a secondary purpose and must be capable of marshalling and towing liferafts that would otherwise be left to drift helplessly.

Rescue boats come in a variety of shapes and sizes and in rigid, inflatable and hybrid RIB types. A rescue boat may be between 3.8m and 8.5m in length and must be capable of accommodating at least five seated persons and a casualty on a standard SOLAS stretcher. The seating space may be on the floor of the craft for all but the helmsman but cannot be on the buoyancy tubes, gunwhales or transom. The power can be provided by a fixed engine or an outboard engine. There are several manufacturers active in producing rescue boats around the globe.

SOLAS permits the rescue boat to count towards the lifeboat provision providing it meets the performance standards for both craft. Passenger vessels above 500gt are obliged to carry two rescue boats, one on either side of the vessel but passenger vessels below this size and cargo vessels need only carry one. Rescue boats must be equipped with certain items and stores needed for their rescue role. If a boat is counted as both a rescue boat and a lifeboat it must be equipped with both sets of stores and capable of carrying out its rescue role with both sets onboard.

The requirement to carry rescue boats was altered in 1989 when the IMO issued Resolution A.656(16) which recognised that fast rescue boats were being used in some offshore operations. The intent of the resolution was to set guideline standards for fast rescue boats which until then had not been codified. These guideline standards were later made mandatory.

The main differences between a ‘slow’ and fast rescue boat is that the latter must be over 6m and under 8.5m in length and capable of operating at 20 knots during a four-hour period using a petrol engine. The 20 knots requirement drops to 8 knots if the sea is not calm or if the craft is fully loaded. A fast rescue boat is also intended to be launched and retrieved under severe adverse weather (Beaufort 6 with 3m waves), and requires a special launching appliance.

Under SOLAS rules it must also be either self-righting or capable of being righted manually by two persons. The rules also require that vessels obliged to carry a fast rescue boat must also have at least two specially trained crews available to man it. IMO has developed a model course for crew required to operate fast rescue boats and the training required is covered by STCW. Courses offered by most training establishments are three-day affairs much of which will be practical boat handling. What cannot be guaranteed is the opportunity to launch, operate and recover the boat in the adverse conditions which it must be capable of operating in.

The requirement for ro-ro passenger vessels to carry fast rescue boats has not been without controversy. In the offshore sector, fast rescue boats are normally launched from and recovered to static rigs making the operations in adverse weather much safer than could be achieved on a vessel.

Under adverse weather conditions a ship would be pitching and rolling with the very high possibility of the craft slamming against the ship side causing damage or death. Critics also say that if there is a good case for fast rescue boats on ro-ro passenger vessels then the same arguments should apply to vessels that are not ro-ros.

Recovering persons at sea

Lifeboats and liferafts are primarily intended are intended to accommodate personnel whether crew or passengers carried onboard the vessel. Ordinarily personnel evacuating a ship would be in a lifeboat when it is lowered but there will be times when they will need to be recovered from the water as will personnel who have fallen overboard or from other vessels, aircraft or offshore installations.

While crew are expected to train for and be familiar with abandon ship procedures, recovering personnel from the water will involve other skills and if not done correctly could bring hazards for both the rescuer and the person being rescued. Recovery techniques should be included in a vessel’s ISM procedures but some assistance may be necessary in drawing up the procedures.

The IMO has addressed this and in November 2014 issued MSC.1/Circ.1182/Rev.1 GUIDE TO RECOVERY TECHNIQUES which is a 19 page document that explores most of the issues and obstacles that may be encountered in an emergency situation. The guidance is in relatively simple terms and is addressed directly at ships’ officers and crew and is broken down into sections with detailed advice under the following headings;

  • Possible recovery problems
  • Planning considerations
  • Providing assistance before recovery
  • The recovery process – general considerations
  • The approach
  • Rescue craft and lines
  • Getting people aboard – factors to consider
  • Climbing and lifting
  • Providing assistance when standing by
  • The immediate care of people recovered
  • Recovery checklist

Mass evacuation systems

On most ships, including offshore vessels with contractor staff onboard, where total personnel numbers are measured in tens or very low hundreds, an evacuation in an emergency can be done quite rapidly using conventional lifeboats and liferafts but the same is not likely to be true for passenger vessels. Not only will there be many more persons to evacuate – maybe as many as 5,000 – but their mobility is likely to be less and with more people involved the potential for panic increases.

Since the 1990s, marine evacuation systems (MES) that make use of liferafts or platforms that are reached using either a slide or a chute have become standard equipment for passenger vessels.

Regulations concerning MES are contained in both SOLAS and the LSA Code but ultimate approval to fit a system in place of required liferafts is the prerogative of the flag state. Any liferafts used in conjunction with a MES are subject to the requirements of the LSA Code, Chapter 4, section 4.1 and 4.2. Examination requirements are in accordance with SOLAS chapter III/20.8 and Chapter 6 of the LSA code; 6.2 covers MES specifically and in detail.

Because an MES is designed for evacuation only, it cannot be recovered and restowed as a lifeboat could be, nor is it possible for the system to be deployed for the purposes of passenger drills.

This limitation is addressed in SOLAS chapter III/19.3.3.8 which says, “drills shall include exercising of the procedures required for deployment up to the point of actual deployment by

the system party assigned to the MES.” Crew trained in using the systems are given instruction in assisting passengers when needed. However, there is little opportunity during operations to check and practice with the system because of the limitation mentioned.

All MES installations are required to be inspected annually and deployed in rotation at six yearly intervals. The conditions for deployment can vary according to flag state requirements and the six-year interval can be reduced. Some flag states have concerns over failed deployments and the matter is being reviewed on a continual basis, although it should be said that the issue of failed deployments appears to have faded in recent years.

An MES is usually housed at the embarkation station and activated by a crewmember.

When activated, the liferaft or platform deploys along with the connecting slide or chute. The slides are inflatable structures to give some rigidity while the chutes may or may not have inflating elements incorporated into them. Although the chutes appear to be steeper than the slides – often hanging vertically – there is not a direct drop inside as the internal structure makes use of a helical slide or baffles to slow descent.

When an MES is in use, some of the liferaft crew will descend to the liferaft to supervise and one or more will be stationed at the evacuation deck to assist passengers board. Although the systems are capable of evacuating passengers much faster than conventional davit-launched liferafts, they can be daunting prospects for trepid passengers; chutes perhaps more so than

slides. Since the first systems were developed, variations have been produced with mini versions designed for vessels with low embarkation decks.

Onboard safe zones

During the early years of the 21st century, some bold new ideas for ensuring passenger safety were formulated and discussed. Among these were proposals for parts of a ship’s superstructure to act as self-contained ships-within-a-ship that would float free as the mother vessel foundered.

Goal-based standards at the IMO and the risk-based approach of the EU’s Safedor project, as well as the IMO’s prescription that passengers should under most emergency circumstances affecting large passenger vessels remain protected in a safe area on board, may one day allow some of the more innovative to become reality but in practice designers have remained more conservative.

The safe return to port and safe area regulation appears to have killed off further development of the ship-within-a-ship concept. In 2006 MSC 82/12 agreed amendments to SOLAS (Chapter II-1and Chapter II-2, Regulations 21- 22) applicable to certain passenger ships (those of which the keels were laid on or after 1 July 2010, having a length of 120m or more, or having three or more main vertical zones). The safe area requirements stipulate that basic services with regard to sanitation, food, shelter and medical aid are to be available to ensure that the health of the passengers and crew is maintained as the ship proceeds to port.

The safe return to port requirements are not without their critics as many believe that a major incident would not permit a ship to return to port and evacuation into lifeboats will be inevitable. More recently, the advent of a new breed of expedition cruise ships has seen some raise other concerns, not least because many of these vessels, which will operate in remote areas, are being built to dimensions that exempt them from the safe return to port rules.

Lifebuoys

As a first form of assistance for someone in the water, the lifebuoy is probably the easiest to carry and use. The exact number of lifebuoys that must be carried depends upon the length of the vessel and whether it is a cargo or passenger ship. The minimum number of lifebuoys on the smallest vessels (under 100m for cargo ships and under 60m for passenger vessels) is eight.

SOLAS requires the lifebuoys to be distributed so as to be readily available on both sides of the ship and as far as practicable on all open decks extending to the ship’s side. At least one should be placed in the vicinity of the stern. They must also be easy to cast loose and not be secured in any way. At least one lifebuoy on each side of the ship must be fitted with a buoyant lifeline equal in length to not less than twice the height at which it is stowed above the waterline in the lightest seagoing condition, or 30m, whichever is the greater.

At least half of the lifebuoys must be fitted with self-igniting lights and at least two of those should also be equipped with automatic smoke signals and be capable of quick release from the navigation bridge.

The requirement for light and smoke is to keep a visual fix on the lifebuoy while the ship performs the necessary man overboard manoeuvre. This has been partially replaced by the MOB button on the GPS but, whereas that will indicate the exact position the alarm was raised, the visual aids on the lifebuoy will help rescuers allow for current and drift.

Lifebuoys should be checked regularly for flotation performance as it is not unknown for the filling material to deteriorate to such an extent that the lifebuoy becomes unserviceable while appearing to be in perfect condition.

Lifeboats, liferafts and lifebuoys may be the most obvious life-saving appliance but there are several other items of equipment which come under the general heading and which are included in the LSA Code and required under SOLAS. All ships are obliged to carry means of signalling such as flares and lights, embarkation ladders and a device for throwing lines.

Lifeboats, liferafts and evacuation systems are intended to be used from the embarkation deck. However, there will be occasions when a ladder may be the only means of reaching the water other than jumping from the ship. Ladders also have other uses as was clearly demonstrated by the images of the Costa Concordia that were flashed around the world in early2012.

Once the ship had listed considerably to starboard, the only means of reaching survival craft from the port side involved survivors making their way down the hull. The ladders secured to the rails and thrown down the hull provided them some measure of safety.

SOLAS requires handholds be provided to ensure a safe passage from the deck to the head of the ladder and vice versa. It also covers the construction of the ladder saying the steps must be made from machined hardwood and of a precise size and the side ropes of the ladder must consist of two uncovered continuous manila ropes not less than 65mm in circumference on each side.

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